On Monday, March 11, 2019 a Cornell University lecture on “Terror Capitalism” in Xinjiang was abruptly interrupted by a fire alarm just moments after the speaker made an ominous observation about everyone being watched by invasive technology. A machine voice instructed everyone to exit the building.
It seemed like a bad joke at first, but nobody took any chances. The august academic building known as Goldwin Smith, where the exiled writer Vladimir Nabokov once leisurely stalked the hallways, was emptied in a hurry.
Fortunately for the hundred or so students who had to clamber out the nearest exit, the long winter that has held Ithaca in its icy grips since early November was showing signs of letting up; a bright spring sun was shining, and the snow was melting away.
But there was another kind of chill to contend with as the emergency alarm continued its eerie electronic throb, especially since the lecturer had been talking about a topic that is all but taboo in China. As the audience, roughly one third Chinese, abandoned the lecture hall in an orderly, obedient manner, students and teachers could be heard joking about the suspect timing of the alarm, especially since there was no smoke or any visual indication of danger.
“They must have pressed a button in Beijing,” joked a professor.
“Maybe someone phoned in a warning,” said another.
China looms large in America these days, even on an isolated Ivy League campus. Hardly a day goes by without news from China, and the news is rarely good. The news cycle is awash with stories about nefarious United Front infiltration, the tricky philanthropy of Confucian Institutes, hair-raising accounts of involuntary renditions, shocking televised confessions, and an uptick in accusations of economic espionage. There’s even a massage parlor angle, involving guests of President Trump at Mar-A-Lago. The media may be guilty of piling on, but the stories are generally well-documented, creating a mood rife with Cold War style polarization and paranoia.
The Cornell lecture, entitled, “Terror Capitalism: Uyghur 'Reeducation' and the Chinese Security Industrial Complex" was based on recent field research in Xinjiang by Darren Byler, a scholar from the University of Washington. In calm, academic tones, he painted a picture of a modern dystopia in Xinjiang, with moving quotes from Uighur acquaintances who despaired of the stark controls, sudden arrests, ubiquitous surveillance and the suffocating sense of being walled in.
When the fire alarm went off--causing the evacuation of a lecture hall full of independent, inquisitive minds curious to know more about developments in China --the interruption seemed to drive home the guest speaker’s key point: Xinjiang is scary, but it is not just Xinjiang. Technology in the name of security is increasingly a menace in its own right, a universal human problem that just happens to be shamelessly on display in China.
Some of Byler’s informants, whereabouts unknown, have probably disappeared into the bowels of the security state. One facility, exhibited on a satellite map, was said to house 130,000 inmates, making it “the largest prison in the world.” Or to use the euphemism preferred by Beijing after the previously secret camps were uncovered; a “vocational training center.”
If the idea of “re-education through labor” falls on deaf ears, it’s with good reason, because such techniques, albeit at a lower technological level, have been tried before. Draconian security measures allow a repressive state to kill two birds with one stone, quelling dissent while harnessing productive labor, as was the case in the Cultural Revolution and other Maoist mass movements.
Where Mao might disagree is the way in which today’s armies of captive labor are being nakedly exploited by capitalist firms that manufacture commercial goods and cash in on the booming business in security technology, which Byler says is currently worth seven billion dollars.
And then there’s the propaganda, something old and something new. Chinese slogans shown as part of the lecture included gems such as:
“Wear civilized, good-looking clothes, be beautiful Urumqi people, resolutely oppose abnormal clothing and behavior!”
“It is absolutely forbidden for any women of all ages to wear masked clothing.”
The latter line had an odd resonance with latest media flare-up on the question of Islam in America in which Fox News anchor Janine Pirro took congresswoman Ilhan Omar to task for her headscarf: “Think about it: Omar wears a hijab…is her adherence to this Islamic doctrine indicative of her adherence to Shariah law, which in itself is antithetical to the United States Constitution?”
Students on US campuses these days are by and large too “liberal” and too finely attuned to notions of political correctness to find themselves in agreement with the testy Judge Jeanine, but she wasn’t speaking into a vacuum.
On issues of immigration, law and order and anti-terrorism, the party line at right-wing Fox News hews closer to that of Beijing than most hard-core Trumpists would be comfortable to admit.
In fact, the build-the-wall, show-no-mercy constituency of Trump’s political base would find much to admire in China’s overly coercive, overly racialist, and overly Orwellian treatment of the people of Xinjiang.
The American hinterland’s embrace of Trump, and Trump’s embrace, in turn, of heavily armed border patrols, aggressive ICE agents, shoot-first-ask-questions-later police vigilantes and budget-breaking disbursements for the armed forces suggests that militant authoritarianism has a sizeable constituency, even in a democracy like the US.
No wonder Trump can lay claim to a special relationship with Putin, Xi Jinping and Kim Jong Un; they all use militant populism and a heavily-armed security apparatus to get things done with a minimum of democratic fuss.
After ten minutes of talking conspiracy while shivering in the cold, the campus fire alarm went silent and the disbanded lecture regrouped, though with markedly fewer students than before. The momentum that had been building when the lecturer said, “Google and Facebook know you are here right now” may have been lost in the hasty evacuation, but it was good to know the danger had passed.
A call to campus security confirmed the incident was not triggered by smoke or fire, nor was the building emptied due to a prank call, but a rare seasonal misfiring of a video monitor that is part of the building’s automated fire detection equipment.
When the spring sun started to set, the automatic alarm got triggered, its automated video detector mistaking the red, red sun hanging over West Hill for a fire.